Posters of Prominence: The Painterly Posters of Howard Terpning
In this era of minimalism and Mondo madness, you’re not likely to see the posters of Howard Terpning classing up dorm room walls. But his hand-painted, museum-worthy portraits were used to represent some of the most high-profile movies of the 1960s. Terpning’s idyllic figures, heavy brush-strokes, and ample color palettes make his posters unusually ornate examples of the medium.
Terpning, now 88 years old, was a Midwest kid who used the G.I. Bill to go to art school after World War II (having joined up at the end of the war as a 17-year-old, he was stationed in China). It took years of apprenticing and freelancing before he landed a movie poster commission, but The Guns of Navarone (1961) was the perfect fit for a portrait artist with Terpning’s military experience. The plot of that film sends some big names — Gregory Peck, David Niven, Anthony Quinn — on a mission to destroy some gargantuan guns off the coast of Greece, and Terpning’s visualization is appropriately massive, masculine, and martial.
Commissions poured in for Terpning after The Guns of Navarone, many of them on similar themes. The 80+ posters in the Terpning catalog advertise mainly war pictures, period romances, and big-budget epics, the kinds of movies that sold themselves as exotic adventures and traded on the nostalgia of audiences for optimistically-remembered conflicts they had either lived through or read about in roseate histories. The movies’ heroes were demigods who strode through the pivotal moments of ancient and modern history: household names and schoolbook heroes like T.E. Lawrence, Michelangelo, Cleopatra, and Oliver Cromwell.
Terpning seldom drew backgrounds, and when he did they were usually flat, monochromatic, and impressionistic. They work like stage curtains and serve much the same purpose as blank backdrops, throwing foreground faces and bodies into sharp relief.
Terpning’s full-bodied figures float breezily atop his windswept backdrops. As vivid and realistic as their backgrounds are hazy and imprecise, Terpning’s foreground human forms are the creators and focal points of the chaotic energy around them. Yet they are weightless, unrooted, and this implies something about the limitations of the characters. Though they are powerful free radicals, capable of working great changes on their environments, the momentous events they shape or respond to may ultimately overtake them. The kinds of movies that called on Terpning’s skills tended to be about big personalities and even bigger events: Lawrence of Arabia and the birth of the modern Middle East, or the Trapp Family Singers and the end of old Europe.
The most identifiable characteristic of Terpning’s art is the collage of heads. Since he often painted for movies that featured ensemble casts, neatly arranged collections of faces were both convenient and representative. They also surely pleased ego-driven actors and their agents who wanted their likenesses on eye-catching advertisements. By contemporary standards, a blob of heads is not particularly appealing; at best it feels somewhat monstrous, like the result of a sci-fi laboratory explosion that disembodied several people and fused them into a single, zombie-like creature, and at worse it feels lazy, like a bad Photoshop made without regard to depth or context. But if you look more closely at Terpning’s head-collages, incredible details pop out of every niche. On the Cast a Giant Shadow sheet, Kirk Douglas’ face is not so much painted as sculpted, with the famous cleft chin and a wrinkled brow acquiring lifelike tactility. Sinatra’s blue eyes peek out like spotlights, and miniature scenes of warfare play around the edges. Terpning’s posters for the David Lean films Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter, as well as some less-remembered movies, also blend hyper-realistic portraits with intricate dioramas.
In the late 1960s, Terpning traveled to Vietnam to sketch scenes from the war, and from the 1970s onward he transitioned from movie poster art to paintings of Native Americans and Western scenes. His elegant visualizations of ‘60s cinema, though, continue to be held in high regard, and when one appears in a Flickchart matchup you can bet that the opposing poster will be decidedly less hand-crafted.